Janitors in a Drum—Part 2, the Investigation

Saturday, July 6, 1974

Finally home after a 13 hour shift I was bone tired, but I lingered in the shower in a futile attempt to wash the smell from my body and nostrils. Your skin does well with a good deodorant soap, but the odor in the hairs of your nose just seems to hang on forever. I knew from experience that when I woke up, the smell would be gone. Until then there was nothing to do but attempt to ignore it as a temporary annoyance. In six short hours I would need to leave for work; my next shift would begin at 12:30 AM. My poor wife’s task would be to try to keep our three young children quiet enough for me to get some semblance of sleep. It was a Saturday—maybe she would take them to her sister’s house for the rest of the day.

Most folks think that homicide detectives spend a large part of their time with bodies, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most cases of course start out with a body and a crime scene, but the real work, the fun part of the job, is always the investigation and as my head hit the pillow, that’s where my mind was going. I knew teams from our office were following up at this very moment and that was frustrating. My part for now would be to get some sleep and be fresh for my next tour of duty in a few hours and that meant, for the time being, I wouldn’t be part of the fun. Mike and I had spent about four hours with the victims in this case—an unusually long period of time, but the bizarre circumstances demanded it. Now, with that behind us and as our teams from Area Four Homicide embarked on the investigative journey, I don’t think any of us realized that the trip would take some two months. No less than 14 investigators would work crucial portions of the case in an effort that exemplified the team spirit of our unit. During the course of the investigation we would be aided by other units within our department, suburban departments and the FBI, not to mention witnesses (some reluctant) and confidential informants.

The pieces of a case like this never develop in a chronological order and our first clue that we would be dealing with a long term time span was of course the fact that our bodies were dressed for winter and we discovered them in July. Identification of the victims is always of prime importance and in this case there was a bit of a delay due to the condition of the bodies. Our crime lab personnel came up with partial prints from each victim and by the end of the first day we identified the person in drum #2 as Sam Marcello, reputed to be a juice loan collector for the mob. Marcello had been reported missing to the Rosemont Police back in February. Rosemont had information that indicated a Joseph Grisafe had been reported missing that same day in another jurisdiction. Late in the first day of investigation an anonymous informant called our office and told us that our victim #1 was in fact Grisafe. The following day the lab would confirm Grisafe’s identity from a partial print lifted from the body and the pathologist confirmed that both had died as a result of gunshot wounds to the head.   We had the solid information we needed to start the grunt work that makes up every murder investigation. In addition, we were fortunate to have a “date marker” that would help people remember when certain incidents had occurred; both men had disappeared on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 24th, 1973, over 7 months prior to the discovery of the bodies.

Reconstructing Saturday, November 24, 1973—

The Little Old Lady in the Window

“Knock on one more door…” was the homicide supervisors’ mantra. They would preach to us at roll call:

“There’s always a little old lady in the window who saw what we need to know.”

Sophia Conti lived in the 900 block of South Claremont, scarcely a block from The Korner Sandwich Shop at Taylor and Western. We didn’t find her by knocking on doors, but rather from a radio dispatch card. During the course of the investigation, we learned that Grisafe’s car had been ticketed and ultimately towed for parking at a hydrant at 930 South Claremont. On a hunch, we searched through the November 1973 dispatch cards stored at the 12th District and there it was: November 24, Parked at a hydrant, 930 S. Claremont, complainant Sophia Conti. We knocked on her door.

Sophia was old school Italian and a one woman neighborhood watch. She was well into her 80’s and walked with a stoop but she spoke with a strong voice and Italian accent.

“Did you call the police for a car parked at the hydrant November of last year?” we asked.

She looked at us quizzically. How could we possibly expect her to remember something like that?

“It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving.”

Her face lit up.

“Yes! Yes, I called. Hoodlums! Mafiosi! They park like they own the street!” She flicked her fingers under her chin in a gesture of distain. “And I called the next day and the next until they towed the car.”

“Do you remember what time you saw them?” I asked.

“I don’t know… it was dark.”

“Maybe around 7?” I asked, looking at the dispatch card; 1856 hours (6:56 PM).

“Could be, maybe,” Sophia shrugged. “They do something bad? Those hoodlums?”

“No ma’am, not anymore—they’re dead.”

Her demeanor changed visibly—she had spoken ill of the dead—she made the sign of the cross as she showed us to the door.

About 8 PM that same evening, Don Borman, a neighborhood regular at the Korner Sandwich Shop stopped by to grab a cup of coffee and visit with the owner, Sam Rantis. The lights were on but the front door was locked. It was unusual for the shop to close this early. Borman knocked insistently. He saw Sam peer around from the back room and disappear. Borman knocked again. Eventually Sam came to the front door.

“I was wondering if he was in some kind of trouble and I just kept knocking until he answered the door,” Borman said. “He only cracked it a bit and he looked nervous and he was perspiring. He told me he was closed and then he locked the door and went back to the rear of the store.”

“Did you think that was unusual?” we asked.

“Absolutely. Since we were friends, he would have talked to me instead of closing the door and just walking away. I thought that was rude, considering we were friends. At our next meeting, he made no mention of it and I didn’t ask him.”

Which came first? The bodies or the drums?

Sam Rantis had a problem; well really two problems. He had two bodies in the walk-in freezer of his sandwich shop.  Teenage part time employees recalled seeing a couple of drums at some point around the Thanksgiving holiday but they didn’t think anything of it and they couldn’t recall if it was before or after Thanksgiving. Sam reached out to a couple of friends, James Erwin and Wayne (Billy) Cascone and asked for their help in disposing of the bodies. Just what help they provided is open to speculation, but somehow Grisafe’s legs were chopped off and Grisafe and Marcello were stuffed and sealed into 55 gallon drums. It is unlikely that Rantis could have accomplished this physical feat by himself; both victims were big men. The major problem was that Erwin and Cascone talked about helping Rantis… and they talked where others could overhear them.

 

The best laid plans…

No one knows exactly what Rantis’ plan was, or if he even had one. Was he making it up as he went along? Or was his plan merely unraveling before his eyes? Whatever the case, at some point, the sealed drums and Grisafe’s legs were moved to the unused storeroom at the rear of the sandwich shop and concealed behind the bread racks. Rather hastily one could assume, because the legs were merely wrapped in heavy plastic and set atop an empty Baby Ruth candy box. In fact, in the aftermath, it was most likely the legs that people smelled and not the drums, as the drums had been very tightly sealed.

On Wednesday, December 5, 1973 attorneys for the families of Grisafe and Marcello served a Writ of  Habeas Corpus on the FBI, seeking the immediate release of Joseph Grisafe and Sam Marcello who were assumed by the family to be in Federal custody. They of course had been murdered 11 days previous and lay moldering in drums at the rear of Sam Rantis’ sandwich shop. Apparently the mob grapevine had not yet reached the families with that information, but the hierarchy most certainly were aware that Marcello and Grisafe had gone missing and further that their last business call had been to Rantis.

Retribution can be a terrible thing…

Two days later on Friday, December 7th, Sam Rantis disappeared. His frozen and partially decomposed body was found 2 ½ months later in the trunk of an auto parked at O’Hare Field . His throat had been cut.

On February 26th the body of Wayne (Billy) Cascone was found in the rear seat of his car. He had been shot in the head.

The mob was closing the ring around all those involved with the deaths and the disposal of their two trusted couriers.

Have a sense of decency…  

The only one still alive was James Erwin, but he didn’t seem worried. At his friend Billy Cascone’s wake he stood with friends singing the chorus of the Beer Barrel Polka:

Roll out the barrel

We’ll have a barrel of fun…

Some laughed and some chastised Erwin for his lack of sensitivity, but the fact was that at that point in time, March, 1974, the drums containing the bodies of Marcello and Grisafe had not yet been discovered, so perhaps some did not understand the significance of his little joke. Nevertheless, it was an important break for our yet to be discovered case. Erwin’s tasteless gag rankled certain people and encouraged them to come forward and give us statements as our case got underway some three months later.

Our Area Four Homicide teams continued to chase down the numerous minutiae that makes up a complex case. Each statement we took, each interview we did continued to draw us closer to the conclusion that Marcello and Grisafe had been murdered by Sam Rantis on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1973. It seemed unlikely to us that Rantis had any accomplices at the time of the actual shooting, rather it appeared to be a simple crime of opportunity. Rantis knew they were coming and he got the drop on them. If there was some master preparation behind the deed, it was indeed a poorly executed plan, pardon the pun.

In late August, 1974, Mike and I spent a whole day reviewing the entire file, along with the homicide files of Rantis and Cascone. On the wall in our office hung a handwritten chart of all of the recent homicides. At the far right of the page were two columns; “Not Cleared” and “Cleared.” The Not Cleared column bore X’s optimistically drawn in pencil. The X’s in the Cleared column were in ink. Every homicide detective in the city understood that their job was to “move the X.” The Marcello/Grisafe case was especially significant; there were two X’s.

Our review of the total body of evidence convinced Mike and me that if Sam Rantis were alive, we would have a strong enough case to arrest him and charge him with the double homicide. Rantis was himself a murder victim of course and so was not amenable to prosecution. There was another way to clear murders however; Exceptional Clearup. We would present our detailed evidence to a Coroner’s Jury, seeking a finding of “Murder, by Sam Rantis, now deceased.”

We typed a summary report that ran five typewritten pages. Perhaps too complex we thought, so we prepared a single secondary page enumerating the major points. Then, just to cover our bases, a day in advance we visited the Deputy Coroner who would be hearing the case. Tony Scafini was one of the more talented deputies in a sea of deputies where, all too often, innate intelligence was not a consideration. Tony reviewed the case with us in detail.

“You’re good to go,” he announced. “See you tomorrow.”

The next morning the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Marcello and Grisafe was duly convened at 9:00 AM. Tony guided me through the preliminaries and then threw the testimony open to me. As I methodically presented the facts I glanced over and suddenly realized that there was one crucial area over which I had no control; the actual members of the jury. Coroner’s jury members were made up of groups of six very elderly men, most likely friends or relatives of staff of the coroner’s office. As I proceeded, I noticed that at least two of them were sound asleep. The others looked, at best, glazed over by the complex case. The court reporter dutifully clicked away as I talked, but I honestly felt that she was the only one paying any attention to what I was saying.

At the conclusion, Scafini dutifully inquired if there were any more witnesses. There were none. He then charged the jury with the case and they woke up and slowly shuffled out to deliberate in the hallway outside the hearing room. They always took 5 to 10 minutes. I think that most of them took this as an opportunity for a bathroom break. After the semi-obligatory 10 minutes, they shuffled back into the hearing room.

“Gentlemen of the jury have you reached a verdict?” intoned Scafini.

“We have,” responded the most alert of the six.

“And what say you?”

“We find this case to be murder, by person or persons unknown.”

My heart sank—there went our clearup—but Scafini lept out of his chair.

“No! No! No!” he shouted as the jury suddenly awakened at his outburst. “You’ve got it all wrong. Go back out in the hallway and I’ll come out to help you.”

Tony Scafini waited until they had oh so slowly shuffled out of the room and then he rapidly followed. He returned in a few minutes and once again we waited several minutes until the men laboriously hobbled back in.

“Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” intoned Scafini as though he was saying it for the very first time.

“We have,” responded their leader.

“And what say you?”

“We find this case to be murder, by Sam Rantis, now deceased.”

I heaved a sigh of relief as I gathered my papers.

“Thanks Tony,” I said.

“My pleasure,” he responded.

Back at the office, Mike and I reviewed our summary report. No less than seven homicide teams, comprised of fourteen men, had participated in this intense two month investigation. Together we had brought a most bizarre case to a successful conclusion.

Two years later the Cook County Coroner’s Office was replaced by the Office of the Medical Examiner, thus doing away with inquests and coroner’s juries.

James Erwin was the only participant in this case to survive… for a time. In May of 1976 he was killed in a hail of gunfire, hit thirteen times as he stepped from his car at 1873 North Halsted Street. I wondered if anyone sang “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here…” at his wake?

Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to my long time homicide partner, Detective Michael Shull. Upon his passing some ten years ago I “inherited” his personal files and case notes—without those, this story would not have been possible.

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34 Comments on “Janitors in a Drum—Part 2, the Investigation”

  1. Phil says:

    Detective Michael Shull …May he rest in peace, and his known stories yet be told!
    Thanks again for a wonderful story Jim!

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for being a loyal reader. For a time, Mike and I held the record for the longest continuous partnership in homicide. His (our) stories live on!

  2. As always a diamond among gemstones. The first time I entered Area 4 and saw the sign “Abandon all Hope ye who enter here” (hope I got that correct) I knew I was in a different part of the CPD. I chuckled but upon further review it was a nervous laugh because I knew what it meant. Keep writing and God bless you and all active and retired P.O.’s.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks as always Greg.

      They used to say that the only way to get out of Area Four was to die or get promoted. I never figured out if that was meant to be a threat or an incentive. 🙂

  3. MaryAnn Dykema says:

    Jim,
    I look forward to your stories. I was anxiously awaiting the end (Part II) of Janitors in a Drum. It did not disappoint. You have a great knack of putting into words, interesting and yet concise information of how you solve a crime. I can only hope the streets of my old home town, Chicago, are under as good care now as you and your partner seem to have given those unfortunate Homicide victims back when you were on duty. Unfortunately, it seems the gangs are winning at this point.
    Thanks for a great read.
    MaryAnn

    • jimpadar says:

      Thank you so much MaryAnn. Things are difficult now in Chicago for the police and the citizens. My only positive observation is, that as an old man, I know the pendulum swings… I hope!

  4. Jim,
    Terrific stories, wonderfully reconstructed and retold. I don’t always comment because i usually read your stories via my RSS reader, but I look forward to each one. Looking foward to the book, mini-series and full length feature film.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Patrick… this was a challenging story to write. The case was complex and my desire was to present it in a concise fashion. I appreciate your comment.

      I do indeed have a screenwriter in L.A. Are you reading Rob? 😉

      • Barry Felcher, NBC 5 News, retired says:

        Jim,
        Your story shows what goes into real police work. I wonder if today’s generation of detectives has the skills you old-timers had.
        — Barry Felcher

      • jimpadar says:

        I think they do. What they don’t have is the time for 14 detectives to work nearly two months on a single case. They are extremely overloaded their ranks are decimated. I have no doubt they are also demoralized to a certain extent. I am glad I am not working under those conditions.

  5. jaz1976@hotmail.com says:

    Well done Mr. Padar, well done!

    Sent via DroidX2 on Verizon Wireless™

  6. Maryann Sevening (CPD retired) says:

    Great conclusion to a well written story. Another winner!

  7. Phil Sangirardi CPD Retired says:

    Great ending as I knew it would be. Keep them coming Jim.

  8. Ed Franzak says:

    Thanks for finishing the “Janitors in a Drum” story, Jim. I loved it. Especially the tongue in cheek humor,Beer Barrel Polka, indeed. I was starting to research how I might serve on a Coroner’s jury. It looked like a really interesting opportunity when you dashed my hopes by telling me that they had been eliminated. I guess I’ll have to settle for being a greeter at WalMart.

    As an aside, you must have had some pretty extraordinary dry cleaner bills.

    All the best,

    Ed Franzak

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Ed for your kind comments.

      There are still about 1,500 Coroners scattered about the country, mostly in very small jurisdictions. New Mexico has none—they have a state-wide Office of Medical Investigation. You’ll have to settle for Walmart. 🙂

      Us homicide guys tried to buy wash and wear dress trousers. Our sport coats were mostly left in the car when we knew we would be doing something messy. Shoes were probably the most expensive problem, but fortunately they did not have to be replaced too often. All in all it was not too bad. We got the same uniform allowance as everyone else, so that was used to cover replacement clothing where necessary. We were required to have one complete set of uniforms, but since we seldom wore a uniform, we could apply the money toward the civilian duds.

      Take care…

      • Rich Rostrom says:

        I just finished reading Clues for Dr. Coffee by Lawrence Blochman. It’s a collection of short stories originally published in 1952 to 1964. Dr. Coffee is a pathologist in “the Midwestern city of Northbridge” who solves cases by careful medical analysis.

        In several of the stories, he has to work around the County Coroner, a rather dim elected official. The Coroner is eager to write off any death as heart failure if there isn’t a knife sticking out of the deceased or visible bullet holes.

  9. Ken Abels (CPD Sgt. Retired) says:

    Thank You, keep em coming, I enjoy reading your very unique style of writing , As the last person to retire out of A/4 before they closed it I especially like A/4 cases.

  10. Roger Elmer says:

    Jim

    That is the Happy ending I remembered but described more eloquently than I could ever hope to do myself. Area Four was indeed a unique place to work. I had two tours there totaling seven years with some of the best people I have ever met.

    Rog

    • jimpadar says:

      If I could repeat any one segment of my years with the city, it would be my 11 years at Area Four Homicide. Thanks for reading and for your comments, Rog.

  11. Vince King says:

    Jim, another great story from you. I firmly remember “that smell”. As a young suburban Chicagoland detective in the very early 80’s, I was one of the very fortunate ones who attended the CPD two week ride-along with the old Mobile Crime Lab Division. I got my baptism down in “Alligator Gardens”, in August on the afternoon shift. We responded to a deceased, 8 month pregnant female who was found on the floor of her apartment. Estimates put her there for about two weeks before discovery. The windows were black with flies. When she was rolled off her side, well to put it mildly, I never encountered anything like that before. Even the two wagon guys ran out.

    This case, along with others during those two weeks, certainly prepared me for my career as a Detective working homicide cases. I could never thank CPD enough for that training along with the way I was treated by all the personnel I came into contact with. It’s a shame it ended. I look forward to your next story, as always.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for reading, Vince. There were many county and suburban folks that rode along with the Mobile Crime Lab and also with us in Area Four. Many valuable contacts formed by that program and universally the caliber of people who rode with us was top notch. I’m sure that only the crème de la crème were selected for participation. Thanks for the comment and consider your self crème. 🙂

    • Vince King says:

      Very kind words Jim, and much appreciated, thank you

  12. John says:

    Great article Jim. It’s funny how the cases with the macabre nicknames (Hag in the bag”, Becky in the box, “Bum in the drum”).amid the sea of homicide and death investigations of the70’s, 80’s and 90’s have the ability to revive even the smallest facts and tidbits decades later. Some were really creative, my favorite was the “Headless Whores-man”. A pimp killed by his former main lady on Halloween..

    • jimpadar says:

      You’re so right John. Doesn’t the “Headless Whores-man” case sound so much better than the Joe Smith case?

      Thanks for your thoughts and comments!

  13. Alyssa G. says:

    I’m a first-time reader of your blog, and I just wanted to say that you’re a great writer and I really enjoyed your Janitors in a Drum story. Have you ever looked into contributing to one of the many CSI-type TV series with some of your Tales from the Street stories? (that is, if you’d even want to do such a thing)

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks so much Alyssa. As a matter of fact, I’ve got a Hollywood guy who has been urging me to write a script or two, but that’s a whole other ball game. For now, I’ll be concentrating on putting a book together, based in part on blog stories.

      Thanks again Alyssa!

  14. John says:

    Good job, moving that X, Jim, especially on an Outfit case. You’re right, most investigations don’t go long term now, wayyyy less confessions now, also. Just a few more months left before I’m gone. Worked in V/C for 18 years. Won’t miss the BS from the Dept., but will miss the guys. I would have never met the people I’ve met, done the things I’ve done, things I’ve been involved in, things I’ve learned from the best…Chicago Police Detectives. Honored to have been one of them.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting John.

      My sentiments exactly… the greatest people I’ve ever worked with. We get together every year for lunch, and while we’re older greyer and fatter, I always look around and marvel at each and eery one of the group.

  15. Jordan says:

    I’ve been reading your for a while now and wow. I’ve been wqnting to become a homicide detective in chicago or michigan state police but keep it up these stories are great.

    • jimpadar says:

      Hi Jordan,

      Thanks for reading and keep plugging along toward you goal. It’s not a job you can just go apply for… you need to work your way up to it, probably over several years. But the trip will be almost as much fun as the actual job. Good luck!

  16. Scott says:

    Almost missed this great story. I came on at the point the outfit was pretty much atrophying. Had a few cases, one pretty interesting but this story was fantastic. Thanks for sharing it Mr. Padar.


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